Tag Archives: European Commission

Juncker’s vision for the future of Europe

In 2014 I was rooting for the election of Jean-Claude Juncker, considering him to be the best candidate to succeed the less than dynamic and imaginative José Manuel Barroso. He was known as a strong supporter of a more integrated Europe, which I consider a must if the European Union wants to survive and play a political role commensurate with its size and economic importance. Twenty-six of the 28 prime ministers and heads of states voted for him. There were only two prime ministers who didn’t: David Cameron of the United Kingdom and Viktor Orbán of Hungary.

I guess I was hoping for some quick policy changes that would indicate a tighter European ship, but what followed was crisis after crisis: 2015 saw another Greek bailout and the refugee crisis, and in 2016 the British voted to leave the European Union. Juncker’s tenure didn’t look like a success.

It seems, however, that quietly, in the background, the commission president managed to achieve 80% of what he and his team proposed for the 2014-2019 period. A senior commission official told Politico that on areas outside the commission’s tradition purview, like security and defense, “We’ve done more in six months than in the last 60 years, that’s all him.” Brexit last summer was the low point for the European Union, but since then some of the EU’s woes have subsided. A lot fewer migrants are arriving on the continent, Greece’s bailout seems to be working, and populist voices have quieted after a number of national elections. The Eurozone’s economy has been steadily growing, and unemployment, although still high, is back to its 2009 level.

Photo: Patrick Hertzog / AFP

Unless one is a keen observer of the European Union, these accomplishments are often swamped by the petty quarrels initiated by the Visegrád 4 countries. As Zsolt Kerner of 24.hu put it, “From Hungary the exact state of the European Union is distorted because of the government propaganda,” but the Juncker administration’s accomplishments are considerable.

Until now Juncker hasn’t made any effort to outline his vision for a more closely integrated Europe. But today he put forth some startlingly innovative proposals that could, if adopted, fundamentally change the very nature of the European Union. Leonid Bershidsky, a Russian journalist who works in Ukraine nowadays, wrote an opinion piece in Bloomberg in which he sympathizes with Juncker’s plans but notes that there are quite a few important European politicians, for example Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron, who will most likely oppose a structure which, although “the word wasn’t uttered, … would be a federation.”

A summary of Juncker’s speech can be found on Euronews.com, and therefore there is no need to cover the whole speech here. Instead, I will concentrate on those items that speak directly to Juncker’s vision of a United States of Europe. First, as opposed to Merkel and Macron who would like to see a two-speed Europe or a core-Europe of countries using the euro as their currency and the periphery of countries mostly found in the eastern half of the continent, Juncker wants all countries, with the exception of Denmark which is exempt, to adopt the euro as they promised at the time of their adherence to the Union. He would entice the countries whose leaders are hesitant to take the step with generous financial incentives for the transitional period. Once there is a common currency, the Union should have its own common minister of finance in charge of the economy. That person could be one of the commissioners, who would also be one of the vice presidents of the commission. One reason for the Hungarian government’s hesitancy to join the Eurozone is Viktor Orbán’s reluctance to lose the independent Hungarian central bank, which has been the source of all sorts of questionable financial moves benefiting his government. Once in the Eurozone, the head of the Hungarian National Bank would just be one of the members of the European Central Bank.

In order to achieve “a Union of states and a Union of citizens,” he proposed merging the functions of the presidents of the European Commission and the European Council. This is an excellent idea not only because, as he put it, “Europe would be easier to understand if one captain was steering the ship” but because it would also make for less friction between the nation states and the center. Apparently, the idea is not new. In fact, the Lisbon Treaty’s wording intentionally allowed for such a merger in the future. This single president would be elected in a pan-European campaign with transnational lists. Juncker didn’t elaborate on how this would work, and it is not at all clear whether even his own party, EPP, would support such pan-EU lists. Optimistically, he believes that he will be able “to convince the leaders of [his] parliamentary group to try to follow this idea.” Juncker’s powers of persuasion are said to be extraordinary because he is able to change even Angela Merkel’s mind.

He also proposed that the new office of the EU chief prosecutor, which until now was supposed to have jurisdiction only over EU financial matters, would from here on get involved in the fight against terrorism. Hungary was one of the countries which for obvious reasons refused to accept the idea of an EU prosecutor’s office, but perhaps if the office is also involved with terrorism it would be more difficult to turn against the proposal.

Finally, Juncker suggested getting away from the need for unanimity in the decision-making process. Again, this is a complicated affair, but there would be a way via the so-called “passarelle clauses” in the current treaties, which would allow the process to move from unanimity to qualified majority voting in certain areas, provided all heads of state and government agree to do so. Juncker insists on using this tool in decisions on taxation and foreign policy.

There are practically no Hungarian opinion pieces on the Juncker speech yet, but Magyar Idők published an MTI report under the headline “Juncker promises a more united and more democratic union.” MTI reports are not supposed to add comments to its press releases, and therefore I was quite surprised to read that “this 70-minute speech by Jean-Claude Juncker has been so far his most considered and most measured state of the union speech, which was welcomed by the majority of the members of the EP delegations.” I really wonder who is responsible for this sentence.

Some of Juncker’s suggestions would remedy problems the European Union has been battling for many years. If a common currency, common army, and common financial policy were to become a reality, the EU would be on its way to being considered a sovereign entity. Of course, there would still be the question of a common foreign policy, but one cannot expect such giant steps. I’m sure there will be many who will find even that much hard to swallow.

September 13, 2017

Viktor Orbán on solidarity and financial assistance

In happier times Hungary wasn’t a prolific source of sensational news items for the international press. With the appearance of Viktor Orbán on the political scene in 2010, however, hardly a day goes by without some juicy story about what the Hungarian prime minister is up to. The avalanche of news items on Hungary at the moment is more impressive than usual. There are two reasons for this sudden interest in the country, and both are related to the “migrant issue.”

First, Viktor Orbán surprised Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, with a letter in which he demanded a hefty contribution to the fence he unilaterally decided to build along the Serbian-Hungarian border in order to prevent refugees and migrants from using Hungary as a transit route toward Western Europe. Second, the European Court of Justice just dismissed complaints by Slovakia and Hungary about EU migration policy. This is considered to be an important victory for the European Union and a blow to Viktor Orbán and his allies in Eastern Europe.

Today let’s tackle the controversy that has developed since August 31 over the issue of the cost of the fence and Orbán’s monetary demands. I will stick closely to the texts of the letters exchanged between Juncker and Orbán. All three letters are available in their entirety.

“I am contacting you regarding the protection of the external borders of the European Union and European solidarity,” begins Viktor Orbán’s initial letter to Juncker. As far as he is concerned, “Hungary followed the Schengen rules requiring the protection of the external borders” all along, and by that act Hungary “is protecting not only itself, but the whole of Europe against the flood of illegal migrants.” Orbán claims that the cost and maintenance of the fence is 270 billion forints or €883,000,000, half of which should be paid by the European Union. He closed his letter by saying that “we agree that solidarity is an important principle of the European community. When Hungary had to protect the common external borders, we started with immediate action and not a request for help. I hope that, in the spirit of European solidarity, we can rightly expect that the European Commission, acting on behalf of Member States, will reimburse half of our extraordinary border protection expenses in the foreseeable future.”

It was unlikely that Orbán seriously expected a positive answer from the European Commission. In a sense, he gave himself away in that last paragraph when he admitted that Hungary “started with immediate action and not [with] a request for help.” It was the sovereign decision of the Hungarian government to go ahead and build a fence along the country’s southern border. As for the cost, both opposition politicians and journalists in Hungary are in total darkness when it comes to the real cost of the fence. Most suspect that the figures are greatly inflated.

Hungarian media commentators were certain from the very first moments after the announcement of the demand that the European Commission would not be impressed by Orbán’s arguments. It took only a few hours after the Hungarian government made the content of the letter public for the Commission’s spokesman to announce that the European Union is not “financing the construction of fences or barriers at the external borders.” As for Orbán’s appeal to European solidarity, the spokesman noted that “solidarity is a two-way street, and all member states should be ready to contribute. This is not some sort of à la carte menu where you pick one dish.” The spokesman then summarized all the benefits Hungary received, for example “over €93 million in funding for Hungary, both from the EU’s Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund and the Internal Security Fund. It also awarded Hungary an additional €6 million in emergency funds.” He reminded his audience that in 2015 Hungary refused to be labeled a front-line state and rejected becoming a beneficiary country, like Greece and Italy. Instead, it opted to build a fence.

After this announcement on September 1, there could be little doubt that Jean-Claude Juncker’s reply to Viktor Orbán would be a firm rejection of the Hungarian prime minister’s specious reasoning. The tone of the letter, however, was polite and expressed an openness for cooperation if there is a willingness on the other side. First, he reminded Orbán of the events of 2015 when Hungary was greatly affected by the refugee crisis and the European Union proposed that an emergency relocation scheme would apply to Hungary, similarly to Italy and Greece. Hungary rejected this offer of “concrete solidarity, declining the possibility to benefit from relocation of up to 54,000 persons and decided to return nearly 4 million euros of EU funds pre-paid by the Commission.” Shortly after that, Hungary “challenged the validity of the Council decisions on relocation before the Court of Justice.”

Then came a list of all sorts of benefits Hungary received from the European Union in connection with the refugee crisis. The last item on the list was “another form of European solidarity [which is] represented by the EU’s regional funds. Hungary is the 8th largest beneficiary of the European Structural and Investment Funds in the period 2014-2020 with an allocation of 25 billion euros. This represents more than 3% of Hungary’s GDP annually, the highest of any Member State.”

Finally, Juncker “welcome[d] the call in [Orbán’s] letter for more Europe in the area of migration and border management.” He also assured him that he is “committed to working together with Hungary towards a more efficient and fairer European migration and asylum policy based on responsibility and solidarity.”

Yes, it was a polite letter, although it contained a fair description of the European Union’s objections to Viktor Orbán’s interpretation of solidarity. And there was one sentence in this fairly lengthy letter that must have sent Orbán into a rage, as we will see from his answer. That was Juncker’s reference to Hungary’s being the eighth largest beneficiary of the European Structural and Investment Funds. So, let’s turn to that crucial part of Viktor Orbán’s answer to Jean-Claude Juncker.

I would like to inform you that we are confounded by the part of your letter that creates a link between the question of immigration and cohesion funds. Such a relationship does not exist and is not permitted by the current EU acquis. According to the view of the Hungarian government, a significant part of the resources provided by Cohesion Funds landed at the companies of net contributor countries. The economies of major EU member states have thus greatly benefited from the use of cohesion funds, as they have benefited from opening the markets of new member states.

Viktor Orbán delivered a speech this morning in which he rejected the widely-held view that Hungary’s economic growth derives largely from the funds received from the European Union. I don’t have the complete text and therefore have to rely on MTI’s summary, but his argument was that Hungary’s yearly budget is 18,000 billion forints while the EU subsidies amount to only 1,000-1,500 forints. What Hungary has achieved in the last few years is “our success.” However, according to Péter Mihályi, a professor of economics, Orbán’s figures are wrong. Between 2006 and 2015, Hungary received 2,400 billion euros. During the same period the Hungarian economy grew by only 4.6%. Without the EU funds that figure would have been -1.8%.

Another topic that irritates Orbán is the European Union’s interpretation of solidarity. He didn’t elaborate on it, but he claims that Juncker’s “interpretation of solidarity is not in accordance with European Union legislation.” More critically, “it is not in accordance with Hungarian historic traditions either.” This difference in interpretation is explained by the fact that “in contrast some of the major member states of the EU, Hungary has no colonial past.” These countries, because of their colonial past, have become immigrant countries, but Hungary is not an immigrant country and does not want to become one. “The interpretation of the principle of solidarity described in your letter is in essence the transformation of Hungary into an immigrant country, against the will of the Hungarian citizens. In my view, this is not solidarity, this is violence.” Finally, Orbán said that he is “stunned and puzzled” that the European Commission refuses to provide funds for the fence. At the end he repeated his demand for half of the €883 million euros which, according to him, is the cost of the building and maintaining the 175 km fence.

Just a footnote to Viktor Orbán’s interpretation of solidarity. Last night, Zsolt Bayer, the anti-Semitic journalist of extreme political views, wrote an opinion piece for Magyar Idők that appeared in the early morning edition of the paper. He also argues that Hungary cannot be compared to countries that are situated in the West. Half of Western Europe countries, for certain periods of time, were colonial powers. These countries occupied large parts of the world where “they destroyed the culture and civilization they found. They killed the inhabitants; they carried away their treasures and raw materials. Those who survived were made slaves. This is the glorious history of the West. That’s how it became rich. That is how it became strong. It is from these treasures that they built their democracy. It is from this position that they began to look down on the people of Eastern and Central Europe who have never had any colonies. The people of those colonial empires are now going to their former slave owners and submitting a bill.”

So, the West is responsible in a way for the migration of the former slaves. They deserve what they get. And as for the financial assistance coming from the West, it is no sign of generosity because in the end all that money ends up in the pockets of western multinational companies. So, politicians of Western European countries have nothing to complain about. At least this is what Viktor Orbán thinks.

September 7, 2017

Legal grounds for the suspension of EU funding to Hungary now

As always, Hungarian Spectrum welcomes democratic voices from and about Hungary. Today we are publishing an article by Hungarian experts on EU affairs. They asked not to publish their names. The reason for this should be obvious if you have read the study Political discrimination in Hungary.

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More and more high-level politicians are calling for cutting EU funding to Hungary because it does not respect the fundamental values and, in certain cases, even the legislation of the European Union. For example, such statements have been made by Emmanuel Macron, President of the France, Christian Kern, Chancellor of Austria, and Günther Oettinger, Commissioner of the European Commission responsible for the budget. Vivian Reding, member of the European Parliament and former EU commissioner for justice and fundamental rights recently declared: “This would be the most effective way to influence the behavior of a government like the Polish one – making a link with the money. It’s the only thing they understand.” Gajus Scheltema, the ambassador of the Netherlands to Hungary, referring to the Hungarian government in an interview a few days ago, declared: “The argument over what happens with our money is indeed growing ever fiercer. We can’t finance corruption, and we can’t keep a corrupt regime alive.”

However, when speaking about the violations of the principles of democracy and the rule of law in EU member states, it is often said that at present there is no legal ground to suspend EU funding to the countries concerned. The German government started to investigate the possibilities to enable the European Commission to freeze funding for EU member countries that don’t comply with the EU’s standards regarding the rule of law – during the next budget period, i.e. 2021-2027. A recent editorial in The Economist (Stop spoiling Hungary’s prime minister – What to do when Viktor Orban erodes democracy) proposes that “the EU should use upcoming budget negotiations to apply fiscal pressure.” Michael Meyer-Resende, executive director of Democracy Reporting International, proposes in his article in Politico (How to fix Europe’s ‘rule of law’ blindspot – Freezing funding to misbehaving members will arm the bloc to withstand authoritarian assaults on democracy) that after 2020 the multi-year agreements which regulate the paying out of EU funds to member states should stipulate that “funds can be stopped following serious breaches of obligations on democracy, human rights or the rule of law.” All this means that not much would happen until 2021, which is certainly very worrying in view of the tendencies in the countries concerned.

In our opinion, there is no need to wait until 2021, as existing EU legislation provides sufficient legal ground for suspending EU funding to Hungary. Moreover, we are convinced that if the European Commission had acted in accordance with EU legislation, it would have suspended EU funding to Hungary a long time ago.

Article 30 of the EU’s Financial Regulation (966/2012) states, among other things, that EU “funds shall be used in accordance with the principle of sound financial management, namely in accordance with the principles of economy, efficiency and effectiveness.” Also, according to this regulation, “The principle of efficiency concerns the best relationship between resources employed and results achieved.” Let us look at one of the countless concrete examples which prove that the Hungarian government uses EU funds in a way that contradicts this principle. (The readers of Hungarian Spectrum are certainly familiar with the details of this example; however, it seems expedient to summarize it here.)

Lőrinc Mészáros is a simple gas-fitter and mayor of the small village of Felcsút where Hungary’s present prime minister, Viktor Orbán, grew up. After Orbán came to power in 2010, the minor company of Mészáros and his wife suddenly started to get enormous orders from the government to implement investments in a wide variety of fields, almost exclusively funded by EU money. By now Mészáros is one of the richest people in Hungary. Last year the most-read political daily newspaper in Hungary was bought and closed by Lőrinc Mészáros. This move came just after the newspaper published investigative articles about the corruption affairs of two close associates of Viktor Orbán. Lőrinc Mészáros also bought the overwhelming majority of the regional newspapers, which now echo only government propaganda. We are certain that all this contradicts the provision of the Financial Regulation on “the best relationship between resources employed and results achieved.”

Furthermore, according to the Financial Regulation, “The principle of effectiveness concerns the attainment of the specific objectives set and the achievement of the intended results.” Let’s see another striking example of the violation of this principle.

The Hungarian government announced that it will allocate in 2017 and 2018 most of the EU money available for the funding period 2014-2020, and in fact, it has already started to implement this measure. It is clear that the only purpose of this government decision is to help the victory of Orbán and his party, Fidesz, at the national elections in the spring of 2018, without any consideration of what will happen after 2018 when EU funding will be mostly exhausted. Such jerking of the economy is also extremely detrimental to business in general. Furthermore, the rapid disbursement leads to inefficient use of EU money, and greatly increases the risks of corruption. These are just the opposite of the “intended results” of EU funding. Moreover, the use of EU money for party political purposes is not included at all in the “objectives set” by the EU.

According to Article 59 (2) of the Financial Regulation, “When executing tasks relating to the implementation of the budget, Member States shall take all the necessary measures, including legislative, regulatory and administrative measures, to protect the Union’s financial interests…”

It would fill many pages just to list all those documents that prove that, since 2010, the Hungarian government and Parliament have transformed the whole legislative and institutional system in a way which makes it much easier for certain political and business groups to steal/misuse EU funds. Here we would just like to refer to the five resolutions of the European Parliament between 2011 and 2017 on the situation in Hungary. The smothering of civil society organisations, repressions against independent media, and the wide-spread political discrimination also means much less control over the use of public money, including EU funds. We are convinced that to suspend EU funding it is sufficient to know that a member state has taken many “legislative, regulatory and administrative measures” to eliminate the means for protecting the Union’s financial interests.

According to the EU’s Regulation on the European Structural and Investment (ESI) Funds (1303/2013), these funds “provide support, through multi-annual programmes, which complements national, regional and local intervention, to deliver the Union strategy for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth.” Accordingly, money from ESI Funds and other European funds has been used, among other things, to improve education and strengthen civil society organisations. However, by now, the EU funding for these purposes does not complement national support but only counterbalances to a minor extent the destruction caused by the Hungarian government.

It is also clear that many other interventions by the Hungarian government also contradicted the aim of “smart, sustainable and inclusive growth.” For instance, as mentioned above, the legislative and the institutional system has been continuously tailored in a way to make it possible to steal enormous sums of taxpayers’ money. Thus, what the EU funding complemented to a certain extent was the money missing due to these thefts. (Such thefts are well known to the readers of Hungarian Spectrum. Just as examples of the numerous cases, we mention the changing of the regulation governing the trading of gas via pipeline in order to fill the pockets of Viktor Orbán’s friend, the colossal swindle about residency bonds, and the transferring of an incredible amount of public money from the Hungarian Central Bank to private foundations.)

According to the EU’s Regulation on the European code of conduct on partnership in the framework of the European Structural and Investment Funds (240/2014), the governments of the member states must closely cooperate with “bodies representing civil society at national, regional and local levels throughout the whole programme cycle consisting of preparation, implementation, monitoring and evaluation.” They should also “examine the need to make use of technical assistance in order to support the strengthening of the institutional capacity of partners, in particular as regards small local authorities, economic and social partners and non-governmental organisations, in order to help them so that they can effectively participate in the preparation, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of the programmes.” The difficult and ever worsening conditions in which civil society organisations work make it almost impossible for them to be meaningfully involved in these processes, and this further contributes to the improper and inefficient use of EU funds in Hungary.

In the Treaty of Accession to the EU, Hungary declared the following: “Our common wish is to make Europe a continent of democracy, freedom, peace and progress. The Union will remain determined to avoid new dividing lines in Europe and to promote stability and prosperity within and beyond the new borders of the Union. We are looking forward to working together in our joint endeavor to accomplish these goals.” In our understanding, this means that after the accession to the EU, Hungary should have improved its legislative and institutional systems as much as possible in order to achieve these goals; at the very least Hungary should refrain from any backward measures. It should be convincing enough for the European Commission to suspend funding to Hungary that during the last seven years the Hungarian government took a direction which is just the opposite to what it legally committed itself.

There is already widespread discontent in Hungary with the way EU money has been used. This is a further reason for applying the related provisions of EU legislation and suspending EU funding to Hungary until the necessary steps are taken by the Hungarian government to ensure the use of EU funds in accordance with the EU acquis. This is all the more necessary because such funding, in our opinion, is indispensable for the future of the European Union. We fully agree with the author of the article One of the first steps after Brexit must be the reform of the EU budget that “it is absolutely necessary to provide EU funds to the less developed member states with the goal of improving their economic well-being as well as their political stability in order to strengthen the EU as a whole and to make it more competitive globally. But EU taxpayers’ money must be used for this purpose, not against it.”

September 3, 2017

Infringement proceedings galore, but what good will they do?

Lawyers working on infringement proceedings launched by the European Commission against the Hungarian government must have been especially busy in the past few months. Yesterday the Orbán government received notices of three such infringement proceedings. Although infringement proceedings against Hungary are numerous, I have the feeling that three notices in one day is a record of sorts. One is a “letter of formal notice” and two are “reasoned opinions.”

Notices that bear the odd name “reasoned opinions” represent the second stage in the infringement proceedings. In these cases the European Commission had already sent a”letter of formal notice” concerning a piece of legislation but found the corresponding answers to their objections unsatisfactory. If the answers to the reasoned opinion are still unsatisfactory, the case will go to the European Court of Justice.

I will start with the odd man out here: the reasoned opinion concerning restrictions on loss-making enterprises in the retail sector. You may recall that recent Hungarian law prohibits supermarkets to continue operation if they operate at a loss for two consecutive years. Not surprisingly, the Commission considers such a measure unacceptable because it runs counter to “the freedom of establishment and the principle of non-discrimination” (Article 49 TFEU) and “the free movement of capital” (Article 63 TFEU). Hungary has two months to respond.

Although this is a horrendous piece of legislation and one very much hopes that it will be abolished one way or the other, it is taking back stage to the two other infringement proceedings. The first, another reasoned opinion, concerns the Higher Education Law, which as amended on April 4, 2017 in practical terms makes the continued existence of Central European University (CEU), founded by George Soros, impossible. The other infringement proceeding, this one a letter of formal notice, addresses the law, adopted on June 13, dealing with foreign-funded NGOs.

The European Union is often accused of dilatoriness, but this time such criticism cannot be leveled against “the bureaucrats of Brussels,” as Viktor Orbán likes to call the officials and politicians of the European Union. They acted quite promptly. In the case of the Higher Education law, the note the Orbán government received is a reasoned opinion and the Hungarian government has only one month to respond instead of the customary three. As for the foreign-funded NGO case, it took the EC only one month to send out a letter of formal notice. Again, the Hungarian government has only one month to respond. Zoltán Kovács, who is in charge of foreign communications, has already complained bitterly about the unfair treatment Hungary received in these cases because of the very short time limit given.

So, let’s see what the EC’s objections are to the amendment of the Higher Education Law. In the opinion of the European Union, “it is incompatible with the freedom for higher education institutions to provide services and establish themselves anywhere in the European Union.” In addition, it “runs counter to the right of academic freedom, the right to education and the freedom to conduct a business as proved by the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union and the Union’s legal obligations under international trade law.”

The law on foreign-funded NGOs introduces new obligations for certain categories of NGOs, for example, to register and label themselves as “organizations supported from abroad.” Again, in this case the European Commission decided that this law doesn’t comply with EU law. (1) It interferes with the right to freedom of association. It could prevent NGOs from raising funds and would therefore restrict their ability to do their work. (2) The law introduces unjustified and disproportionate restrictions to the free movement of capital. (3) It raises concerns as regards the respect of the right to protection of private life and personal data. In plain language, the exact amounts of transactions and detailed information about donors would have to be reported to the Hungarian authorities, which in turn would make the data public.

Anyone who thought that the Orbán government would be terribly impressed by the legal arguments outlined above would be wrong. Zoltán Kovács told Politico that “we, of course, maintain our position.” If necessary, the government will go to court. Politico also got in touch with Márta Pardavi, co-chair of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, who correctly pointed out that “infringement procedures alone are inadequate to redress the combined impact of retrogressive reforms that have taken place since 2010.” The European Parliament would need to vote on an appropriately damaging report which, if passed by two-thirds of the European Parliament, could trigger Article 7(1), which would result in the withdrawal of Hungary’s voting rights.

The Hungarian government’s response to these latest infringement proceedings is defiance. Pál Völner, undersecretary in the ministry of justice, said that “the government is ready to face infringement proceedings with relation to the NGO Act. These are organizations that want to weaken Hungary’s defense capabilities in the fight against illegal immigration.” The charge that organizations like Transparency International or the Hungarian Helsinki Commission want to weaken Hungary’s defense capabilities is of course nonsense. The Hungarian government wants to curtail their activities because it considers them opponents of the Orbán government’s unlawful modus operandi.

Márta Parvadi is right: the Orbán government cares not one whit about all these threats of legal proceedings under the aegis of the European Court of Justice. Viktor Orbán doesn’t mind paying fines, even heavy fines. For political gain he has no compunctions about spending billions of forints of the Hungarian taxpayers’ money. That’s why the only hope of the anti-Orbán forces is that the European Parliament report that may trigger Article 7(1) will be prepared soon. Well, there is good news on this front. On July 11 Judith Sargentini of the Greens/EFA was appointed rapporteur for the European Parliament’s investigation into whether Hungary is in breach of the values of the European Union. But more about that tomorrow.

July 14, 2017

Hungarian NGOs embrace civil disobedience

I don’t think anyone was surprised when two days ago the Hungarian parliament with its overwhelming, almost two-thirds Fidesz majority passed a law imposing strict regulations on foreign-funded non-governmental organizations. The law bears a suspicious resemblance to the 2012 Russian law that required groups that received funds from abroad to identify themselves as “foreign agents.” The Hungarian version is somewhat more “lenient.” The targeted NGOs don’t have to call themselves “foreign agents,” but they must bear the label that they are the recipients of foreign funds, which can be considered a stigma.

Defenders of the bill insist that there is nothing “discriminatory” in this new “civic law,” but, of course, this is not the case. If it were, there wouldn’t be so many “exceptions” to the rule. For example, churches and sports clubs are exempt. Fidesz politicians feel confident in capitalizing on how the Hungarian everyman reacts to anything foreign, especially after a series of anti-migrant campaigns that, as we know from polls, greatly increased xenophobia in the country. Just imagine an interview with the managing director of TASZ, the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, in which either she must introduce herself or the reporter must introduce her as “the leader of a foreign-funded organization.”

Fidesz’s pretext for enacting such a law is the government’s alleged striving for more transparency and for preventing money laundering and the financing of terrorism. Anyone at all familiar with the work of such organizations as TASZ, the Hungarian Helsinki Commission, or Amnesty International, three NGOs that are specifically targeted by the government, knows that it is not money laundering that is bothering the Orbán government. Over the years these NGOs have become increasing irritants as far as the Orbán government is concerned. Every time the lawyers working for these NGOs suspect illegality they immediately turn to the courts, and they almost always win. As far as Fidesz and the Orbán government are concerned, this is an intolerable situation.

The government’s position is that human rights activists are not elected officials and therefore they have no right to act as a quasi-political opposition to the elected government. Of course, this argument is unacceptable in a democratic society where people can freely organize political associations on pro- or anti-government platforms. Even political parties fall into the same category. They are voluntary organizations ruled by their own by-laws and their own boards of directors. All these groups have the right to function freely as long as they act in a lawful manner. Fidesz has pretty well succeeded in making the other political parties inconsequential. But the NGOs refuse to go away or kowtow to the government. And so it was time, somehow or other, to get rid of these pesky civil rights activists with their highly qualified lawyers who keep poking their noses into the Orbán government’s dirty business.

Viktor Orbán hates these organizations, whom he considers in large measure responsible for many of his problems with the European Union, the European Court of Justice, and the European Court of Human Rights. If these organizations hadn’t existed, he wouldn’t have had half the problems he has had over the years with the European Commission.

With the anti-NGO law, Orbán is most likely convinced that the small, cosmetic alterations the government made by incorporating some of changes recommended by the Venice Commission will satisfy the European Commission, as similar superficial modifications to Hungarian laws satisfied the commissioners in the past. For a few days foreign papers will be full of articles condemning the undemocratic, illiberal Hungarian state and a few foreign governments will publish official statements expressing their disapproval of Orbán’s latest move, but nothing of substance will happen. In fact, in a couple of days everybody will forget about the bill and its consequences. Then, sometime in the future, the Orbán government will make another move against the NGOs. Because few observers believe that this will be the last attempt to get rid of the NGOs that stand in the way of the present Hungarian government.

Only a few hours after the enactment of the “civic law,” TASZ announced that it will not obey the law, i.e. it will not register as the law demands because “this is the most effective way of combating this unconstitutional law.” According to TASZ, the law violates the freedoms of speech and association and unlawfully differentiates among civic organizations. TASZ’s lawyers are also convinced that it violates EU laws because the legislation violates the European Union’s internal market rules, in particular the free movement of capital. TASZ is prepared for the consequences of its action. Máté Szabó, professional director of TASZ, argued along the following lines: “Some of the enforcement possibilities will be open to us only if we don’t comply with the law. Since we do not want to relinquish a single law enforcement option, we will not comply with the requirements of the law.” Stefánia Kapronczay, executive director of TASZ, said: “We are aware of the fact that legal procedures will be initiated against us, but we are not afraid of them. Yearly we represent our clients in more than a hundred cases in the courts of Hungary, the Constitutional Court, and the Strasbourg court…. I’m convinced that after long procedures this law will have to be discarded.” The Hungarian Helsinki Commission joined TASZ in boycotting the new law on civic groups. “Unless and until the Hungarian Constitutional Court and/or the European Court of Human Rights hear the case and approve the law, we will not register.”

I think that the decision of these two civic organizations is the correct one, even if László Trócsányi, minister of justice, announced that “civil disobedience is not known to me, nor is it known in [our] legal system.” This was obviously meant not as an admission of ignorance but as a warning to TASZ and the Hungarian Helsinki Commission. However, I would like to remind Trócsányi that his lawyers don’t have a great track record against the lawyers of these two NGOs.

June 15, 2017

The “Let’s stop Brussels” questionnaire: Orbán’s silver bullet?

I haven’t analyzed Viktor Orbán’s speeches for some time, but yesterday he delivered a fairly important speech to parliament. So I think it’s time to take a closer look at the Hungarian prime minister’s state of mind.

As usual, he is on a war footing with Brussels. But if I’m correct, his posture, despite his belligerent tone, is more defensive. His position within the European Union has weakened considerably since the Brexit referendum and the French election. More and more voices can be heard within the European Union calling for financial retribution as a form of punishment for countries that refuse to cooperate when it comes to the refugee crisis. For the time being Jean-Claude Juncker would like to avoid such a drastic step, but the announcement of a looming infringement procedure can be expected any day.

Obviously, Orbán has been expecting such a move on the part of the European Commission. Right now the only bullet in his defensive arsenal is “the national consultation,” with which he wants to “stop Brussels.” But not all bullets are equally effective. The “Let’s stop Brussels” campaign and its imbecilic, deceptive questions have annoyed the Commission from the beginning. I very much doubt that the Commission will be impressed by the responses the Hungarian government received arguing against any interference by the European Union in what Viktor Orbán considers purely national affairs.

Before I turn to the actual speech, I would like to say something about the “success” of this particular consultation. The claim is that the “Let’s stop Brussels” questionnaire was returned by a record number of citizens. Indeed, if we take a look at the Wikipedia entry on “Nemzeti konzultáció,” we can see that this year’s questionnaire was returned by a greater number of people than any of the other five campaigns previously staged. However, we must keep in mind that no independent body counts the returned forms. We have only the number the Orbán government provides.

Given the lack of accountability of the government, I have long had my doubts about the government’s figures in connection with these consultations. This time I’m even more suspicious than before. The consultation drive began on April 1, and on April 19 Antal Rogán’s propaganda ministry reported that 140,000 questionnaires had been returned. But then, on April 25, six days later, Csaba Dömötör, undersecretary in the prime minister’s office, announced that 380,000 questionnaires had been received. Quite a jump, I would say. Two weeks after that, the same Dömötör triumphantly announced that “more than 1,130,000” citizens had already returned their questionnaires. In two weeks the numbers had almost tripled. But if the drive was such a success, why was it necessary for Lajos Kósa, as leader of the Fidesz parliamentary caucus, to ask for an extension of the deadline from May 20 to May 31? In any case, Viktor Orbán at the beginning of his speech in parliament yesterday claimed that 1.4 million people are practically unanimously standing behind the government in its fight against Brussels. This number, by the way, by the end of speech became 1.7 million. So, who knows?

Altogether 8.1 million questionnaires were sent out to all citizens over the age of 18, and therefore it doesn’t matter how you slice it: 1.4 or 1.7 million returned questionnaires, take your pick, shouldn’t be hailed as a great victory. But what is really annoying is that Viktor Orbán blithely turned the official government figure(s) of a 17%-21% return rate into a pro-government response rate of greater than 50% when he said that “the majority of Hungarians think that Brussels is going in the wrong direction.”

What do the government and the “majority of Hungarians” want, according to Orbán? They want “a Hungarian Hungary and a European Europe.” A couple of years ago Jobbik’s Gábor Vona announced with great fanfare that “Hungary belongs to the Hungarians,” and it seems that Viktor Orbán now agrees with him. I wonder what he would say if the prime minister of Slovakia or Romania announced that he wants to have an ethnically pure Slovakia or Romania and the Hungarian minority has only two choices: emigrate or assimilate. I assume there would be an incredible outcry, and with good reason. As for the “European Europe,” we all know what Orbán has in mind. A white Europe.

In connection with the ten-year jail sentence for “terrorism” meted out to Ahmed H. for using a megaphone to call for calm during clashes at the Serbian-Hungarian borders, Orbán accused “Brussels” of supporting terrorists at the expense of the security of the Hungarian people. Bernadett Szél (LMP) said in response that Orbán had “misplaced his medication.” George Soros couldn’t be left out of Orbán’s speech to parliament, and indeed the “American speculator” was pictured as someone who is directing the fate of Europe. The European Commission is under his influence. He asked the members of parliament “not to stand by Brussels in Hungary’s disputes with the European Union.” In addition, the parliamentarians “should stand by the Hungarian people in the battle between the Soros mafia and Hungary.”

Orbán announced that Hungary “can’t accept that [its] future is decided in Moscow, Brussels, and Washington.” As for the future, Orbán made some strange comments. Let me quote one of them. “The French election during the past weekend shows that the revolt of the European people has also reached France.” We know that when Orbán in the last couple of years was talking about “the revolt of Europeans” he was not thinking of Macron’s centrist movement. Macron’s victory is not a welcome piece of news for Orbán, which he tries to hide here. He also seems worried about a possible French-German “experiment to transform Europe,” which may take place after the German election. At the moment, “it is not clear whether these developments will help or hinder the realization of Hungary’s national interests.” Odds are, however, that hard times are coming, and therefore the national consultation took place at the best possible moment.

Let me express my very serious doubts that Orbán’s national consultation is the kind of silver bullet that will save the Hungarian government from the consequences of Viktor Orbán’s antagonistic, confrontational behavior and his flaunting of the core values of the European Union. Surely, in his sane moments he must know that those stacks of returned questionnaires are not worth a plug nickel when it comes to negotiations with the important political players of the European Union.

June 13, 2017

George Soros and the mafia state: The Hungarian reaction

The Brussels Economic Forum (BEF) recently held its annual conference on economics and finance. BEF is a European Commission- sponsored organization where politicians and scholars deliver lectures, and where panel discussions are normally moderated by journalists. It is a truly international gathering. This year’s keynote speech, delivered by George Soros, created an uproar in Hungarian government circles.

The speech was mostly about the European Union’s precarious position given that it is confronted with powers that “are hostile to what [Europe] stands for”–“Vladimir Putin’s Russia, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s Egypt, and the America that Donald Trump would create if he could.” Soros talked about the need for “both salvation and radical reinvention” of the European Union. He addressed Brexit, the Eurozone, the migration crisis, and the banking crisis in Italy. It was at the very end of his short speech that he talked about the resistance of young people all over Europe and Great Britain against undemocratic right-wing parties and governments. He singled out “the ruling Law and Justice party in Poland, and Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party in Hungary.” He was most surprised and heartened by the resistance in Hungary to the Orbán government’s attack on Central European University, something he was not expecting. He added: “I admire the courageous way Hungarians have resisted the deception and corruption of the mafia state Orbán has established, and I am encouraged by the European institutions’ energetic response to the challenges emanating from Poland and Hungary. While the path ahead is perilous, I can clearly see in such struggles the prospect of the EU’s revival.”

George Soros had visited Brussels a few weeks ago to confer with EU politicians about the plight of Central European University, but otherwise he had remained silent on the subject. Nonetheless, for months he has been under relentless attack by the Orbán administration, so it was amusing that the first reaction to his speech from members of the Fidesz leadership was that Soros’s comments were a clarion call for war against the Orbán government. As Tamás Deutsch, a Fidesz EP member, put it a few hours after the speech, “if it’s war, let it be war, we are ready.” By the next morning, when Viktor Orbán delivered his Friday morning “interview,” Soros’s critical words about the “mafia state” had become a “declaration of war.” Orbán said that if anything in Hungary can be called “mafia-like,” it is “the Soros-sponsored network of NGOs.” Fidesz filed a complaint with the European Commission, the sponsor of the Brussels Economic Forum. The party is looking for an explanation of how such comments could have been uttered at an event under the aegis of the European Commission.

It has been in the air for some time that certain Fidesz politicians are preparing themselves for renewed anti-government demonstrations sometime in the fall. If trends continue, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if spontaneous or quickly organized demonstrations would take place as soon as students return from their summer vacations. Most likely the Fidesz leaders feel the growing dissatisfaction, and they’re trying to lay the groundwork to counter such events. One way of handling such situations is to blame any kind of anti-governmental movement on a foreign culprit. And, of course, there is no more prominent culprit than George Soros. Antal Rogán, at one of his propaganda campaign stops, indicated that there might come a day when the police will have to use force against the demonstrators, who receive instructions in training camps and who provoke the police. He claimed to know about the existence of such training camps in Hungary. And who is behind these training camps? Naturally, the Soros-financed NGOs.

This nonsense is now being spread far and wide by the government propaganda machine. Ottó Gajdics, the editor-in-chief of Magyar Idők and one of the most primitive Fidesz propagandists, is warning Viktor Orbán to be prepared for “blockades and the occupation of government buildings.” The organizers of the past demonstrations realized that “rallies with music and dance” are not effective enough, and therefore hard-core violent demonstrations might take place. Gajdics’s fear of such a development was reinforced by George Soros’s “message.” Soros said in his speech in Brussels that “it is not enough to rely on the rule of law to defend open societies; [one] must also stand up for what one believes.” As far as Gajdics is concerned, that is a call for revolution.

The editors of Magyar Idők found the idea of a revolution in the fall organized by George Soros so attractive that, in addition to Gajdics’s editorial, the paper published another opinion piece in which the unnamed author foresees a scenario similar to that taking place in Macedonia. Macedonia, in his opinion, “has been ravaged” by George Soros via his NGOs. There the situation has deteriorated to such an extent that a few days ago a would-be assassin fired three shots at an outgoing minister of the Gruevski government. “We can only hope that [what happened in Macedonia] is not the dress rehearsal for the Hungarian elections [because] the expression ‘mafia state’ wasn’t uttered by accident as the crowning moment of the merciless speculator’s speech.”

It is somewhat surprising how enraged the Orbán government is with the label “mafia state” since the term, as readers of Hungarian Spectrum well know, has been in circulation since at least 2013, when Bálint Magyar published the first article in which he used it. The term stuck abroad as well. I found via Google over 1,000 mentions in English of Hungary as a mafia state. In Hungary about a year ago an opinion poll revealed that a majority of Hungarians describe the Orbán regime the same way.

A couple of days ago I saw a headline claiming that the anti-Soros propaganda campaign is not as successful as earlier Fidesz propaganda efforts had been. Well, equaling or surpassing the anti-migrant campaign would be a difficult task, I admit, but the latest Republikon Intézet poll reveals that this particular Fidesz effort is in fact effective. Only 31% of the population think that Soros does not at all or does not seriously intervene in Hungarian domestic politics, while 28% believe that he has considerable influence on Hungarian politics and 12% think that he has some influence on Hungarian politics, with about 20% not willing to take sides. That means that 40% of the adult population more or less bought the anti-Soros propaganda. Of course, Fidesz voters are especially prone (about 70% in this case) to believing whatever the party tells them. For those who understand Hungarian, I highly recommend taking a look at this video where hard-core Fidesz voters tell the journalist what they think of George Soros and Brussels.

The socialist-liberal-Jobbik group is more immune to the government propaganda: only 30% swallow all the horror stories they hear on television or radio or read on the right-wing internet sites. Indeed, it could be worse, but unfortunately propaganda Orbán-style is extremely attractive because it appeals to patriotic or nationalistic impulses, which are hard to combat.

June 3, 2017